At Hearing, Senator Portman Questions Experts on the Drug Trafficking Crisis at the Southern Border
WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee hearing this morning, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) questioned experts on the drug trafficking crisis at the southern border, the increase in cross-border fentanyl trafficking, and what more the federal government can do to help address this crisis. Portman has led efforts in the Senate to combat the influx of deadly synthetic drugs, like fentanyl, into the United States from foreign countries, especially China. His bipartisan legislation, the Synthetics Trafficking & Overdose Prevention (STOP) Act, which became law last year, is working to help reduce the supply of fentanyl shipped into Ohio through the U.S. Postal Service. The witnesses confirmed that the STOP Act was making a difference.
As the chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI), Portman conducted an 18-month investigation into this issue and released a stunning bipartisan report detailing how drug traffickers exploit vulnerabilities in our international mail system to easily ship synthetic drugs like fentanyl from China into the United States through the U.S. Postal Service. The STOP Act closes this loophole.
Portman: “Thanks and I again want to start by thanking each of you for your service. This is such a rare opportunity to speak to a bunch of experts who are in the trenches every day dealing with these issues that I wanted to come back for a second round and I appreciate the chairman allowing me to do that. First, on the drug issue, I didn’t have a chance to speak to this earlier because there’s so many topics but Mr. Cherundolo, you talked about the fact that now fentanyl is coming across the border and we are having more seizures of fentanyl. Typically, as you know, it’s been coming from China through the mail and my understanding in talking to U.S. Customs and Border Protection that still is the preferred method for these traffickers. So, most of it is still coming in through our own U.S. mail system because we don’t have the tracking that the UPS, FedEx and others do. We’re now putting that in place under the STOP Act. I’m disappointed it hasn’t been done more quickly but it’s moving to the point where I think we’ll have about 100 percent from China within the next several months. But do you think that there is more fentanyl being shipped now into Mexico and then coming across the border, and if so, why is that happening? Why wouldn’t they keep doing what they’ve been doing which is send it to a P.O. box in the United States? Is it partly because of the STOP Act, which now will require the post office to have that data – where it’s from, where it’s going, what’s in the package on all the packages, which it had not had until now – or is it some other reason why they would want to ship it into Mexico?
“Again, my presumption is it’s not being produced in Mexico. There were two instances, I think, where we have found some production of it in the past but in my understanding both of those have been shut down. So, what’s going on? Can you give us the dynamics of that, and how can we be more effective in stopping it?”
Greg Cherundolo, Chief of Operations for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA): “So Senator, certainly the STOP Act is a welcome tool and has helped. The two primary methods of fentanyl coming in to the United States; one, are by parcel shipments into the United States but again, coming across the southwest border. Many seizures as a result of the investigations that DEA is conducting and the investigations that our counterparts are conducting, we’re seeing an increase in the number of instances where large seizures of fentanyl are coming across the southwest border. The purity levels that we look at differ slightly. What we see coming from China tends to be a more pure form of fentanyl, but certainly everything from the investigations that we’re conducting indicates that Mexican cartel organizations are increasingly dealing in fentanyl, particularly in the form of making them into counterfeit drugs, into pills.”
Portman: “That’s been happening. But are you telling me today that we’re now seeing evidence of manufacturing fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, in Mexico or is this being manufactured still at chemical companies in China and then being shipped into Mexico?”
Mr. Cherundolo: “We are certainly looking at the production of fentanyl in Mexico and fearful that the transition from production of methamphetamine, which is very prevalent in Mexico, to fentanyl will occur.”
Portman: “You haven’t seen it yet, you haven’t proved it yet, but you’re concerned about it?”
Mr. Cherundolo: “Certainly the two instances that you talked about are the instances we see but the re-tableting fentanyl…”
Portman: “Right, making it into a tablet that looks like a prescription drug and OxyContin or something.”
Mr. Cherundolo: “We specifically started an investigation unit with our Mexican counterparts that addresses the precursor chemical flow into Mexico for the production of fentanyl.”
Portman: “Well this is something to keep an eye on because as we saw, it just overwhelmed us. It’s by far the number one killer now among opioids and opioids are the number one killer in the country. In my home state of Ohio we’re getting devastated still by fentanyl. I will say that in a lot of areas of Ohio we’ve made progress. We actually have the highest reduction of opioid deaths from overdoses of any state in the country in the last year. That isn’t saying much because we started at such a high level but what we’re seeing instead now is crystal meth coming in from Mexico in a very pure form. I was told by a law enforcement official recently it’s less expensive than marijuana by weight on the streets in Columbus, Ohio. That crystal meth is coming almost exclusively from Mexico, is that correct?”
Mr. Cherundolo: “That’s correct. The production of methamphetamine in the United States is very limited to what we call ‘Mom & Pop’ or ‘Shake & Bake’ labs that are lower amounts. The larger seizures of methamphetamine we see coming in to the United States as a result of our investigations are coming from labs that are producing the methamphetamine in Mexico.”
Portman: “It’s cheaper and more powerful than the stuff that used to be made in the basement or in the trailer. That’s what we’re seeing in Ohio too. We aren’t seeing environmental damage caused by that but we are seeing a much higher grade, higher quality, more devastating drug, cheaper. So what do we do about it? The appropriations bill we put an unprecedented amount of money towards this screening technology, to be able to look through a truck, for instance. We’ve also put in place the INTERDICT Act in addition to the STOP Act. We’re trying to get more funding into personnel because of the expertise you all need to have to identify these products and safely deal with it. How is that going and what should we be doing?”
Mr. Cherundolo: “So certainly for all of us at the table, I don’t want to speak for everybody but I think our resources from the personnel standpoint is a critical issue, particularly from the DEA standpoint. We continue to hire to fill vacancies to have additional agents to do the investigations. But our relationships with our foreign counterparts are critical. The developing relationship, like I said, with the Sensitive Investigation Unit to identify chemicals flow into Mexico, particularly from China and from other countries, are critical and key issues for us, but that partnership with our foreign counterparts is critical and it’s ever evolving. With the changeover in the administration in Mexico, we’re still working our way through how our relationships will develop and continuing to strengthen those relationships is critical for our way forward.”
Portman: “Mr. Howe or Mr. Tubbs thoughts on this? My sense is 90 percent of heroin coming in to Ohio comes across the southern border, almost 100 percent of the crystal meth now coming in across the southern border, increasingly more fentanyl – still mostly coming in the mail – but more if it now coming in across the southern border. What would you do with this funding we’ve provided? What’s the most effective way? As the chairman said, some of it is coming through the ports of entry, no question about it. The majority has traditionally because it’s been brought through with vehicles but once that is closed down, my sense is that they’re now shifting more to places along the border where they can’t have access between the points of entry. Is that accurate? Can you give us a rundown of what you’re seeing?”
Randy Howe, Executive Director of Operations for Customs and Border Protection (CBP): “Thank you Senator. Yes, the $564 million giving us that multi-energy drive thru system is going to increase our capability. We’re going to be able to stop the narcotics from coming in. Thank you for the STOP Act, we are seeing an improvement in that advanced data information coming from China and other countries. I think as we work to fully implement that and also the money you provided, the $45 million for our NII, our mail facilities and more canines, that’s all going to be paying off for.”
Portman: “Excellent. Mr. Tubbs?”
Timothy Tubbs, Deputy Special Agent in Charge, Homeland Security Investigations: “As I had said prior, as we look at the personnel and resources that go the CBP for the interdiction, as those interdictions increase, our criminal investigations are going to increase, our response are going to increase and we as HSI, ultimately what we’re looking at, along with working with our counterparts in DEA is identifying those transnational criminal organizations and working with our foreign counterparts and our SIUs and our TCIUs so that we can truly dismantle those organizations.”
Portman: “We talked earlier about push and pull factors and there’s no question that we need to do more to keep the demand down here in this country because the prevention efforts are often going to be most successful and getting people into treatment and longer term recovery. We’re making progress on that as indicated on opioids but having this interdiction is important too because the cost of this drug on the streets will be higher. Some of it will be stopped, and because of the supply and demand, some of it will be higher and that’s one of our issues right now. It’s not only so powerful, it’s so inexpensive relative to what it has been in the past. So we thank you for what you’re doing every day. You’re saving lives by doing that. Finally, let me just say that what you’re doing on trafficking is absolutely critical too. My sense is, and Mr. Tubbs I know you see this coming across Laredo, more and more of these traffickers are trafficking people in addition to drugs and it’s a very lucrative business, just as you talked about earlier about how lucrative the drug business is. So keeping a focus on that is also much appreciated by those of us here on this committee.”